Cultural Imperialism Sucks: a visit to Berlin
After I exited the plane, it took me several minutes before I realized I
was in Germany. After all, the airport was designed with the same basic
concepts, the people all looked fairly normal, and all the
advertisements were all identical to their counterparts in the US.
Once we left the airport and begun wandering around Berlin, things
didn’t get much better. There was a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Burger King, a
Pizza Hut and a T-Mobile store (called T-Punkt in some weird homage to
Ashton Kutcher), ads for Coca-Cola and even a The Body Shop. (A major
shopping mall was run by Sony; just like in old SF.) The streets looked
roughly similar, the cars had the same manufacturers, the buildings had
the same basic styles.
The similarity plays tricks on you. It not only took me a while to
realize I was in Germany, it was a while before I realized this was the
former home of the Nazis. (I was trying to think where I’d heard of the
Reichstag before…) When I exclaimed my discovery, apparently the older
people on the bus turned to look at me. One wonders how much of their
fitting in is an attempt to forget their different past.
There were still differences, of course. In America, if someone knocked
you out and took you on a plane to some random city in the country, you
probably wouldn’t notice except for the fact that the street signs might
have changed color. Aside from that tiny bit of individuality, cities in
America are almost literally indistinguishable, down to the streets and
landscaping. Germany isn’t that bad.
The most obvious is that they get to keep speaking their quirky little
language, although only speaking English here gets you pretty far. On
the other hand, their currency—and presumably their government—has
been integrated into the EU. But the biggest thing you notice is that
the city is simply more elegant. The cars are smaller, the public
transit far superior, and the font on the street signs to die for. But
if london had EU currency, I’m not sure it’d be all that
There is a blatant taste for modernist architecture. (This is the land
of the Bauhaus, I suppose.) Just about every building I’ve been to has
been done up in styles that would be considered high culture in America.
Including our hotel room, where you can see into the top half of the
shower from the bed and a door swings between the shower and the toilet,
so that you can only use one with any privacy at once.
Despite the usual guidebook platitudes, Berlin does not feel like a
particularly vibrant city. Abandoned construction sites are everywhere,
with large quantities of supplies just laying by the street, and
graffiti coats most public surfaces, not enough to demand a repainting,
but enough to make it everpresent. All the stores have signs announcing
that new, shorter hours will begin starting next year. I overhear
complaints about 18% unemployment.
With an overseas like this, one wonders why Americans make such a fuss
about going overseas. One can apparently visit Europe with about as much
culture shock as visiting LA: a few different local chains, a different
public transit system, a new accent to learn, and, of course, a new set
of street signs. A convenience for the business traveler, perhaps. A
vast emptiness for everyone else.
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December 27, 2006